Learning how to innovate at Sarvodaya event

Posted on October 26, 2008  /  4 Comments

In 2006, Sarvodaya started a project with IDRC funding to help the burgeoning telecenters (under various names) learn from each other and solve the problems they faced in an environment marked by rapidly changing technology and consumer demand. As part of this effort, Sarvodaya Fusion organized two training sessions at the MAS Institute of Management and Technology in Tulhiriya.

The presentation that Helani Galpaya and I did (Sujata and Chanuka ran a parallel session) included components on innovation in service industries, the external environment that made innovation so important for telecenter operators, and systematic learning from failures. Because we had to work with multiple languages, it was not possible to cover all the slides, which are here.

One of the things we noticed was that there appeared to be two different kinds of problems: the first kind could be fixed through process innovation; the second kind was structural and required remedies that were outside the scope of an event like this. An example of the latter is location. When the telecenters under e Sri Lanka were first planned, the principle was that they could not unfairly compete with existing unsubsidized communication bureaus and that there had to be no other telecenters near their locations. Yet we found that this principle is being violated in the rush to put as many telecenters in place as possible. In some cases location decisions had been made on the basis of promises of connectivity, which had not been fully met.

So with the next offering, we will say upfront that structural problems are outside the scope and focus the participants on the solveable issues.


  1. As I understand, the objective of this workshop organisers is building telecentre operators’ capacity. If not, it should be. Resolving the infrastructure/operational issues of telecentres should be the focus of ICTA and Sarvodaya at large.

    Unfortunately, many operators use the platform to raise the infrastructure issues (“No Internet for nine months”) and operational issues (“It took me more than twenty phone calls to get a faulty PC repaired.”) I guess this may be due to lack of interaction with ICTA.

    Another observation: Many participants still expect ‘government’ to solve their problems. They do not see solutions within themselves. (eg. Waiting till ICTA provides Internet for months, even when commercial ADSL or WiMax are readily available.) Sarvodaya should take note. It was their own visionary leader who always advocated pragmatic community based solutions instead of waiting for government action.

    In 2003, I suggested what ICTA should do is not to give equipment for telecenter owners but arrange a scheme (with a bank) where a prospective owner can take a loan with easy terms to start telecentres at rural areas. Had it been the case, most of their infrastructure and operational issues to location, resources and even sustainability would not have been there. Why micro manage? ICTA being a lean organization can it afford such micro management?

    I cannot understand why even World Bank endorsed this kind of Stanilistic, centrally planned system instead of a more market oriented system. I hope it is not too late to change.

  2. “An example of the latter is location. When the telecenters under e Sri Lanka were first planned, the principle was that they could not unfairly compete with existing unsubsidized communication bureaus and that there had to be no other telecenters near their locations.”

    I think the ‘unfair competition’ is largely addressed by the provision of free (or subsidized) equipment to Nenasalas. What more protection one needs?

    Observation: Sirimalwatte Ananda thero of Haddessa (off 1 km from Peradeniya Gampola Rd) runs a financially viable Nenasala with a minimum of 5 similar centres offering competitive services in the area. His main source of income: Type setting. Secret of success (as he puts it): “We provide a superior service. If others asks for five days for a job, we work at night and deliver it within two days”

  3. Agree. Our concern then was about unfair, subsidized competition from the telecenters against the pre-existing bureaus, not vice versa.

    If a subsidized telecenter gets no business for whatever reason, they should close. Shows that there is no demand for the subsidized service.

    If it is because an unsubsidized entity is taking the business, kudos to the winner. The subsidized telecenter should not have been set up in the first place. If an even more subsidized entity is taking the business, all strength to them. Let them spend their money; the partially subsidized entity should relocate.

    But this is all outside the purview of capacity building and learning to innovate.

  4. A request to IDRC/telecentre.org/Fusion:

    Please consider including small scale cyber cafe operators in your next training programmes.

    As far as the operations and services are concerned, I see no difference between small scale cyber cafes and subsidied telecentres in Sri Lanka. Now both cater to same markets (geographically and economically), provide same services and charge the same. So why differentiate?

    Why treat the two Nenasalas in Colombo Fort different from a cyber café say, in Embilipitiya or Moneragala? Shouldn’t the latter get more focus?

    Yes, cyber cafes are a commercial operation, but that should not mean they should be left out because these guys are not even in the formal private sector. It is not even SME. It is SE – more a small scale business with low profit margins. Owners cannot afford training for staff. Not the formal private sector that can look after their own training.

    If your objective is to improve the capacity of operators so that the community receives a better service my opinion is you should treat the unsubsidised telecentres equal, if not better.